Has Flightline Been Forgotten Already

It took a victory in the Met Mile in his fourth career start for the entire racing world to know who Flightline was and what amazing feats he was capable of. Two races later he was retired from racing. The question now is how will he be remembered and what kind of impact did he leave on the sport? He will always have his idolaters for what he did on track and his detractors for what he didn’t do on the track; which was mainly run. Which side are you on? ~ Steve Haskin

Has Flightline Been Forgotten Already

By Steve Haskin

Photo by Steve Haskin

When was the last time you heard the name Flightline mentioned? When was the last time you saw his name in print? How will Hall of Fame voters and Nominating Committee members look at him when he becomes eligible to be on the ballot? Why did he receive so little support in last year’s Vox Populi Award voting for the most popular horse?

Only eight months have passed since the whirlwind known as Flightline blew through the Sport of Kings, decimating everything in its path. But his name has been a mere whisper at best since he was crowned Horse of the Year back in January. Are his mind-boggling performances, as few of them as there were, already fading from our memory?

People in general like to savor good things. No one wants the greatest meal they’ve ever to be gone in a few minutes. No one wants the greatest vacation they’ve ever been on to end quickly. No one wants to look at the Grand Canyon for only a few seconds and then have to leave. There are several expressions we use to accompany the word “gone” that signifies something good that came and went too fast: “Gone in the blink of an eye”…”Gone in a heartbeat”…”Gone in a flash.” All those I would imagine have been used, or could be used, when discussing or thinking about Flightline. When those expressions apply, an event or an experience might burn brightly in our consciousness for a short while, but few stand the test of time. Our gift of memory needs something substantial enough to grasp on to in order to give it a sense of timelessness.

Flightline’s feats were unlike anything we’ve seen before, and that includes the all-time greats. That is not to imply that Flightline belongs in the same sphere as those legends that reside in the pantheon of the sport. Their accomplishments combined spectacular feats, record times, toughness, durability, conceding large amounts of weights, and two important elements that the sport has lost – familiarity and dependability.

Was Flightline a product of his times, with racing fans having no choice but to accept the transient nature of the sport? Do we temper our enthusiasm after some exciting new phenom shows up knowing he likely will be gone at the end of the year? Do the majority of racing fans look at the lightly raced Justify in the same light they did Triple Crown winners such as Secretariat, Afffirmed, Seattle Slew and Citation, and even American Pharoah?

In determining Flightline’s status when it comes to his being voted into the Hall of Fame in five years and to just jolt our memory, we have made a list of pros and cons, as imbalanced as it may be.


His margins of victory were staggering. He won all six of his races by an average margin of just under 12 lengths, which is unheard of in the annals of the sport. No horse has ever dominated his opponents in such a manner…in every race.

He was dominant from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles in the sport’s three biggest locales – New York, California, and Kentucky.

His speed figures were incomparable, reaching far beyond the limits of others, again in every race.

His smallest margin of victory was six lengths and that was coming off a 5 1/2-month layoff, traveling cross-country, breaking slowly, having to steady, and stretching out to a mile in one of the toughest races in the country to win, the historic Metropolitan Handicap, in only his fourth lifetime start.

In his three victories at age 4 he defeated the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, Woodward, Dubai World Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Pegasus World Cup, Santa Anita Derby, Haskell Invitational, Pennsylvania Derby, and Carter Handicap.


He raced only six times (three times at 3 and 3 times at 4). That’s it. But in many people’s mind that outweighs all the pros when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Ghostzapper was an anomaly when he was elected to the Hall of Fame with only 11 lifetime starts and that was nearly twice as many starts as Flightline. Justify no doubt will get in the Hall of Fame with only six starts in just 111 days, but he swept the Triple Crown and every Triple Crown winner is in the Hall of Fame, so he will get a free pass. But Flightline was raced very sparingly despite appearing to be sound and healthy. Did he have nagging problems we knew nothing about or was he just fragile and needed long stretches between races? There used to be an expression in racing: “Too fast to last.” We saw it with Graustark and Hoist the Flag and Raise A Native and Danzig and Maclean’s Music. If Flightline falls into that category then perhaps he was trained and managed brilliantly by John Sadler.


Whatever Sadler did and for whatever reason, there was a great deal of pressure on him to preserve the mystique that surrounded Flightline’s career and his unprecedented domination over his opponents. It’s tough to have an undefeated horse when you know it takes only one defeat to go from invincibility to fallibility and lose your place in the history books. But how much pressure is there when a victory by a half-length or one or two or even three lengths can actually detract from your horse’s lofty reputation and remove that image of him as a mythical winged steed of our fantasies? The expression associated with the legendary Eclipse, who dominated his opponents, was, “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.” It wasn’t enough for Flightline to remain undefeated. He had reached a point where his opponents were expected to finish nowhere. Anything less would have been a letdown.

By the time Flightline is eligible for the Hall of Fame we may be so used to horses being virtual strangers we no longer will give it a second thought. Will that open the door for lightly raced but vastly talented classic horses like Rags to Riches and Smarty Jones? I believe that in five years Flightline will be a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame because of his unprecedented string of other-worldly performances and doing something no horse has ever done and likely will ever do.  And once Justify gets elected with the same six career starts, but no dominant victories or fast times in stakes, a precedent will be set.

Flightline likely will get a second surge of media coverage when his first crop of yearlings sell at the sales. But until then it is up to the historians and the chroniclers of the sport to prevent his name and his extraordinary accomplishments from fading away. And then it will be up to the Hall of Fame voters to decide whether he raced enough to enter those hallowed gates.

As for my own beliefs I am torn between two eras – today’s ultra conservative approach to the sport and the 1960s and ‘70s when the standards of greatness were set so much higher than they are now. I knew the equine heroes back then like they were good friends. I hardly know them at all today. I do know this. I never saw Flightline race in person and was up close to him only once as he stood outside his barn at Keeneland getting his feet washed. But in that one brief encounter he was able to convince me that I was in the presence of greatness. That hasn’t happened very often in my 56 years in the sport.

Walter Brennan saw the “look of eagles” in a horse named Bluegrass in the classic movie Kentucky. It is something that is indefinable that reaches deep inside you and makes you feel as if you’re looking at something out of the ordinary. A week before the Breeders’ Cup I saw it in Flightline outside his barn. Even with him having only five starts at the time it’s a look you can’t ignore.

The doors of the Hall of Fame are open much wider than they used to be, but even so it’s been several decades since a male horse has entered who is considered among the all-time greats. With the direction the sport is heading, with the racetrack merely a stopover between the sales ring and the breeding shed, that trend likely will continue.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t the case with Flightline, whose unusual career was far from scripted even being a $1 million son of Tapit. He was unraced at 2, did virtually nothing of note at 3, winning his first stakes in late December, and didn’t race until mid-June as a 4-year-old. So he lived quite a while at the racetrack. He just didn’t get out of the house very often.

But it’s what he accomplished when he did get out that separates Flightline from the others, and when you race only six times that separation has to be vast if you are going to leave a huge imprint on the sport.

I have no idea how long Flightline’s name will live on and to what extent. I do know that in an era when the word great is thrown around haphazardly, mainly because the younger generation has no idea what its true definition really is, I feel comfortable attaching that word to Flightline. We just have to accept the fact that these days great comes in smaller doses.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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